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Komen running fastest down the well-trodden path

Mike Rowbottom on the African academy led by tomorrow's main attraction at Gateshead
Paul Evans was in reflective mood as he flew back from last month's Ivo Van Damme meeting in Brussels.

Now concentrating mainly on marathon running, the 36-year-old Briton had run a satisfactory 10,000 metres, breaking 28 minutes. But four laps from the end he had been lapped by a man travelling at bewildering speed - Paul Tergat of Kenya, who was in the process of setting the world record of 26min 27.85sec.

Evans, who finished 11th in the 1992 Olympic 10,000m final, smiled ruefully at the recollection.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I feel sorry for our track boys now. They just have to say to themselves that they are running in another race from the Africans."

Evans is competing in an area where it still seems possible for European runners to win - as he did in Chicago last year. But even in the marathon, the lists tell a similar story - the top three performances of all time are by Africans. Rob De Castella, Steve Jones and Carlos Lopes's times of the mid-Eighties have been surpassed.

This summer, world best times in middle and long distance events have been equalled or broken 11 times - all the work of African runners, or in the case of the 800m, a Kenyan who has adopted Danish nationality.

As the season draws towards its close, the pre-eminent performer to emerge is a softly spoken 21-year-old Kenyan, Daniel Komen, who will run tomorrow in the Bupa Grand Prix at Gateshead.

He set his first world record in Rieti last September, taking nearly five seconds off Noureddine Morceli's mark for 3,000m as he clocked 7:20.67.

Afterwards he commented: "I think I can be better in the 3,000 and 5,000 and the two-mile. Those records can all go lower, maybe next year."

The 3,000 apart, it has come to pass. Komen began by becoming the first man to break eight minutes for the two miles, lowering Haile Gebrselassie's world best from 8:03.54 to 7:58.61.

After winning the world 5,000m title, he was defeated over the distance in Zurich by Gebrselassie, who set a record of 12:41.86. But nine days later in Brussels, the loping figure of Komen, urged on by an African drum band and a commentator on the verge of delirium, made the record his own with a time of 12:39.74.

He has also established his right to be regarded as a potential record- breaker at 1500m and the mile, completing the former distance last month in 3:29.46, the time which stood as a world record to Said Aouita for seven years until 1992.

"We're just finding out what Daniel can do over the shorter distances," says his manager Kim McDonald, who looks after a group of around 30 Kenyan athletes at his training base in Teddington.

McDonald was a respectable runner himself, with a best of 13:49 for the 5,000m, but as a developer of Kenyan talent he has made himself world class.

Athletes such as Joseph Keter, the 1996 Olympic steeplechase champion, William Tanui, the 1992 Olympic 800m champion and multiple world champion Moses Kiptanui have all made regular use of the South London centre. Now Komen has come through.

Out of Teddington, always something new.

When they are not running around Bushey Park, the Kenyan athletes like to go out shopping in London. But the items purchased tend to be things like generators to take home to their family farms.

Komen, who first made his mark as an eight-year-old when he came ninth in a senior high school 10,000m track race, has a background that is typical of many of his fellow Kenyan athletes.

By the age of 12, he was running 12 miles a day to and from school.

His mother used to sell potatoes by the side of the road. But with his new-found wealth - last year alone, he earned $250,000 (pounds 160,000) in winning the overall IAAF grand prix - he has bought a farm in his native Nyaru which provides a living for the rest of his family, seven brothers and six sisters.

At the end of last season, Komen bought himself an Armani suit. But he has now, apparently, exchanged it for one of Kenyan manufacture.

Unlike many of his fellow runners, who have scholarships at American universities, Komen returns home when he is not competing to spend time on his family farm. "I like driving the tractor and milking," he said.

His extraordinary range of talent - he began life as a 10,000m runner, finishing ninth in the 1994 Commonwealth final after a mad dash to the lead - has put him at the centre of what has been an African pass-the- parcel routine with world records.

In every event there is another keen challenger - Hicham El Guerrouj in the 1500m and mile, Gebrselassie and his Kenyan colleague Paul Tergat at the longer distances. It is a depth of talent, African talent, which will ensure that the records continue to fall.

In the 5000m, for example, McDonald believes the 12:30 mark will be the next one to go. Then perhaps the 12:20 mark. "You can't put a limit on it," he said. He seems to be right. africa's middle and long-distance dominance

World's best middle and long-distance performers 800m: Wilson Kipketer (Den, formerly Ken) 1min 41.11sec, 1997 Seb Coe (GB) 1:41.73, 1981 Joaquim Cruz (Bra) 1.41.77, 1984 1,000m: Coe 2:12.18, 1981 Steve Cram (GB) 2:12.88, 1985 Noureddine Morceli (Alg) 2.13.73, 1993 1500m: Morceli 3:27.37, 1995 Hicham El Guerrouj (Mor) 3:28.91, 1997 Fermin Cacho (Sp) 3:28.95, 1997 2,000m: Morceli 4:47.88, 1995 Venuste Niyongabo (Burun) 4:48.69, 1995 Said Aouita (Mor) 4:50.81, 1987 3,000m: Daniel Komen (Ken) 7:20.67, 1996 Morceli 7:25.11, 1994 Haile Gebrselassie (Eth) 7:26.02 1997 5,000m: Komen 12:39.74, 1997 Gebrselassie 12:41.86, 1997 Paul Tergat (Ken) 12:49.87, 1997. 10,000m: Tergat 26:27.85, 1997 Gebrselassie 26:31.32, 1997 Paul Koech (Ken) 27:36.26, 1997